Commentary Magazine

Pope Jill the First

A few months ago, a journalist named Melinda Henneberger had an interesting encounter with the left-wing media gadfly Jay Rosen. He had said he would like reporters to disclose more about themselves in the course of their work—“what they think are the biggest challenges facing the nation, who their heroes and villains are,” and so on.

I think his idea is pretty good for the same reasons Rosen gave: that routine disclosures like this would expose the “fake impartiality” of most mainstream journalism. Henneberger, a former star reporter at the New York Times who was serving at the time as the editor of the website Politics Daily, didn’t agree. As a lifelong reporter, she replied that her passion for objectivity stifled any ideological commitments she might have.

Then, in a gently mocking tone, she went on to oblige Rosen by describing herself as “a tax-and-spend pro-lifer who questioned our intervention in Iraq from start to finish even as my views on gay marriage evolved”—and who, further, supports “comprehensive immigration reform” and drives a “Honda hybrid that only mildly assuages my concerns about climate change.” Her disclosure was intended to be jokey but it was also apparently accurate. Merely by listing her views, which she took to be complex and impossible to categorize, she thought she had established that it was absurd to think they would ever infect her published reporting.

Yet the joke was on her, for of course she’d done quite the opposite. Look again at how this certified mainstreamer chose to describe herself. With the exception of being “pro-life”—perhaps the Catholic velleity of a Notre Dame grad—her catalogue of views and tendencies reads like a caricature concocted by conservative media critics like Brent Bozell or Andrew Breitbart. That Henneberger failed to see this only underscores Rosen’s point. The liberalism that suffuses the work of even the most careful reporters is so deep-seated as to be altogether unconscious.

Take a guess: While she was otherwise questioning the Iraq war and worrying about climate change, which way do you suppose “her views on gay marriage evolved”?

With Henneberger’s example freshly in mind, I watched with wonder the ceremonial coming-out of Jill Abramson as the new executive editor of the New York Times. The appointment of a new top editor at the Times is to the mainstream media what the selection of a new pope is to world Catholics. I’m sure the editors would have released a plume of white smoke over Times Square as the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., made the announcement, except that the Times building is strictly a smoke-free environment.

Much was made of Abramson’s sex, which qualified her to become the first non-male executive editor of the Times. “A triumph for women in media,” tweeted the editor of Newsweek, Tina Brown. “In this one great paper,” wrote the Times columnist Gail Collins, herself a woman, “maybe we’ve reached the ultimate goal of the entire women’s movement.”

Most of the commentary demonstrated yet again that here in the age of diversity stereotypes of women and minorities are more than acceptable—indeed, mandatory—for the progressives who once deplored all stereotypes, so long as they are sufficiently flattering to the people being stereotyped and sufficiently slighting to anyone who has the wrong genital profile, ethnicity, or melanin count.

Professor Jill Geisler, of the Poynter Institute, who trains journalists in such vital academic specialties as “leadership styles, change management, motivation, and collaboration,” was nearly giddy at the thought of a female pope helming the Times. She nonetheless dared to raise a point that would instantly occur to almost any nonprogressive but which troubled no one else in the mainstream.

“Those of us who have felt the sting of stereotyping”—Geisler is blonde—“might hesitate to declare one leader better than another, simply on the basis of gender.” Hesitation over, Geisler went on to declare that female leaders are better than male leaders on the basis of gender. And you didn’t have to take her word for it. For next she quoted an “expert on gender,” who cited women’s unique “leadership skills, their collaborative and nurturing leadership styles, their mental flexibility, and increasingly their tolerance for ambiguity.”

No ambiguity there! While Abramson’s sex was assumed by all to be determinative, her own liberalism was never acknowledged. With the left-wing polemicist Jane Mayer, Abramson wrote one of the sacred texts of 1990s liberalism, Strange Justice, which was intended to reinforce the progressive view of the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas—that Thomas was a liar and probably a pervert, while his accuser Anita Hill was a martyr to feminism. Abramson and Mayer were staff writers at the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau at the time. When they were accused of anti-Republican bias, they replied that the book was nearly as critical of Senate Democrats as Senate Republicans. And so it was. The authors slammed a handful of Democrats mercilessly—for not supporting Hill. Condemning both Republicans and Democrats from the left: in the mainstream press, that’s what we call playing it right down the middle.

In the aftermath of her appointment, Abramson followed Jay Rosen’s advice—she disclosed much about herself and, like Henneberger, did so inadvertently. Abramson’s view of her job promotion was not modest. “I think it [is] a healthy, nice thing for the country,” she said of her boost in salary and title. But her grandiose view of her job is of a piece with her view of the New York Times. While denying her liberalism, she freely conceded her Timesism.

“Timesism” is a word I’ve just coined (you’re seeing history being made) to denote the bizarrely inflated opinion that many readers hold of the New York Times, both its quality and its authority. Most but not all Timesists are New Yorkers; significant missionary stations have been opened up along the West Coast and in university towns across the country. Like Henneberger’s belief in the impartiality of the mainstream press, Timesism is a strain of American liberalism—the liberalism that dare not speak its name.

Two generations ago a rational if not dispositive case could be made for the central tenets of Timesism: the paper did set the news agenda for the rest of journalism, and the quality of its writing was uniformly high. No one would dare make that case today about a newspaper that employs Thomas Friedman. So Timesists don’t even try; the undiminished superiority of the paper is simply assumed, a bedrock of the creed.

I have met very few mainstreamers who were not evangelical Timesists. Abramson was bred to it. “In my house growing up,” she said soon after her appointment, “the Times substituted for religion.” This quote was roundly mocked in the conservative blogosphere, and some unnamed editor at the Times was uneasy enough to excise her words from later editions. “I was saying it really in jest,” she told a CNN interviewer later. But she insisted on the underlying sentiment. What united all Times employees, she said to an assembly of the faithful in the newsroom, was “our deep belief in the indispensability of the New York Times.” In one later interview, with Jim Lehrer on PBS, she even restored the theological wording. “The New York Times was worshipped in my family,” Abramson said. “What the Times said was true was the truth.”

I hope Rosen is pleased: Abramson has told us all we need to know. The faith abides. The smoke rises. Habemus papam.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, our press critic, wrote last month about the killing of Osama bin Laden. His new book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, was published in March.

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